4. Highlights of Paddling The Darling

The paddle itself was a hard slog a lot of the way, particularly for old blokes who these days spend most of their time sitting, staring at a screen. There was negligible flow, but that’s not to say every day wasn’t enjoyable. The overall impressions of the trip was that the sense of isolation and solitude was enhanced further by the extraordinary silence. Few birds called, no insects buzzed, the river ran slowly so there were few rapids, snags or races to produce the usual sounds you’d expect from a river. It takes a while to register but it was the silence which remains as the most powerful memory of paddling the Darling. There was little insect life. The birds which watched warily from distant trees offered little in the way of songs. Only rarely did we hear the usual Australian bushland alarm clock of kookaburras declaring their territorial sovereignty. Occasionally the whistle of a kite or the shrieks of a flock of corellas or cockatoos would break the feeling of intimacy which came with the silence, but compared with other rivers it was the silence which defined the experience. It was D. who first voiced this, declaring the Darling to be “The Silent River”. We immediately agreed it was the river’s most powerful impression. The roads which came close to River Darling’s course carried almost no traffic. It was the norm to travel 3-4 days without seeing signs of humanity other than broken, abandoned pumps, windmills and the occasional derelict building. But isn’t this what the long distance paddler seeks more than anything, a chance to escape from the clamour and the madness of civilised life? The Darling offers this in spades and bend after bend with comfortable campsites from which you could easily spend a week enjoying nothing but your own company in splendid isolation and enriching silence.

For those interested in fishing there’s plenty described in this account. we are all keen fishermen and enjoy kayaking as much for the chance to fish and camp in out-of-the-way places as the paddling. The best section of the river for fishing, or certainly where we had most success was downstream of Wilcannia approaching the Menindee lakes. Large schools of bony bream feed on the water fleas (daphnia) which proliferate in the warm, shallow, less turgid waters. These attract huge flocks of cormorants and pelicans while also supporting (it seems) higher populations of yellowbelly and cod. The Menindee lakes are not really lakes, but the artificially dammed floodplain of the Darling which at the time of our navigation extended almost 100 kilometres upstream. They’re shallow and the cause of much debate, with locals seeing them as a vital means of maintaining a steady flow in the river while some in the environmental lobby demand the river be allowed to flow naturally. But whatever the opinion this section of the river teamed with life compared with what we had seen upstream.

Menindee Lakes sunset

The most interesting section if for no other reason than it was different to everything else was crossing the Menindee Lakes themselves. Surrounded by semi-arid countryside marked with low saltbush and dry red soil the calm reflective blue waters were clear and easy to paddle. Large numbers of aquatic birds thrashed the water to foam on every reach – everything in profusion from silver gulls to sea eagles whose stacks-of-sticks nests top-hatted the dead red gums which lined the old course of the Darling as it snaked through the lakes. The flocks were easily panicked every time we came within range. The pelicans were usually smart enough to double back after being spooked and flying forward two or three times, but bend after bend we would flush the flocks of cormorants which every time would attempt to escape downstream, only to repeat the performance as we rounded the next corner. Often they were scared into regurgitating the fish they had just caught and dozens of bony bream, up to 150mm in length were left floating on the surface as the flock took to the skies.

Other than our starting point at Brewarrina the river runs through the settlements of Bourke, Louth, Tilpa, Willcania, Menindee and Pooncarie before meeting River Murray at Wentworth. All these towns are interesting and charming in their own way, though Louth and Tilpa can not really be described as “towns” as each is no more than a classic outback pub. But what great pubs they are, so filled with atmosphere and history. We also stayed at several stations which offered accommodation where we had left food drops on the drive upstream. Everywhere we stayed the people were friendly and supportive, always interested in our trip and keen to help where they could. From lending us a car to drive to the pub or into town to feeding us the best meals of the journey it was everything you’ve heard about country hospitality.

Contrary to what we’d read there were plenty of great camp sites the length of the river

Our research before the trip suggested River Darling was a muddy channel, high banked, saline and degraded. We anticipated poor camping conditions with mud covered boats and gear most of the way, but this wasn’t the case. In camping over 40 nights on the banks we had only a handful of less than ideal spots and almost every day we were able to find a sandy bank where we could land the boats without getting caught in the mud and a flat dry section for our fire and tents.

Don’t be put off by the tedious repetition, poor expression and questionable behaviours you’ve found detailed in this blog. Paraphrasing Sturt’s report from his journal when navigating the river…. “The journey was more interesting than the account there of”. In this sense, nothing has changed in 190 odd years. The real delight of traveling the Darling is in the isolation and the sense of tranquility, the sensitive description of which is beyond the literary abilities of the blogger, though it could be that words alone cannot describe the experience.

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